My dreams didn't work out, now what?
September 12, 2009 10:50 PM   Subscribe

Liberal-arts-grad-filter: How can I parlay my existing skills (qualitative, creative, communication-oriented, artistic, empathetic) and experience (tutoring, writing/editing, activism) into something with a sustainable income and job security?

I am a 42-year-old American woman with advanced degrees in anthropology, creative writing, and women's studies. My employment history includes tutoring as a grad student, entry-level journalism, freelance writing, and a gamut of "B" jobs to fill the gaps. The most money I have made was as a technical writer for a trade union. I wrote manuals for apprentices. I was hoping to continue as a tech writer but found that contracts like the trade union were a rarity, and without IT experience I would not get many job offers in the field. I have $50K in student loans already and have never made more than $30K in one year, so returning to school would be a last resort. My parents are exasperated with me and will not help because nothing has really worked out for me so far. I don't expect them to be responsible for me anyway, and besides they don't have a ton of money either.

When the economy tanked, I lost all my freelance clients. I wanted to work in a more structured environment anyway, and I soon found a grant-driven, temporary position in pre-election activism. When that ended all I could find was an $11/hour clerical job that I just found out will end in six weeks.

When I was younger, I decided to pursue my dream of being a novelist at all costs, so I neglected my professional development and have lived an unconventional, Bohemian lifestyle, and I feel a lot of shame and regret at the way this has turned out. I have no assets, no savings, and no retirement fund. I do not have a spouse who can carry me through these tough economic times. Instead, my husband and I are separated and he is trying to establish himself in an artistic field also. Neither of us have kids, and he is a lot younger than I am. Our relationship is still very loving, but its future is up in the air. I initiated the separation, and our unstable financial life was a big part of the reason. My tiny income carried us more often than not.

We live in one of the states with the highest unemployment rate. All the instability in my life has propelled me into a nasty mix of anxiety and depression, and I'm being treated with medication and counseling. I finally feel like I can concentrate on something other than my mental health and I really need to start earning much more money. But because I haven't focused on how to be a truly professional adult, I have only the vaguest idea of how to get a better job. My core issue is my shame and my fear that I'm not really all that marketable -- that I'm nothing more than a dilettante slacker and that all any employer wants are things I don't have, like quantitative skills and an ability to multi-task and focus on detail. I try with my clerical jobs, but it's really hard -- I'm a very abstract thinker. I would love to become a counselor, but I think that is out of reach due to the student loans I already have. I didn't mind tech writing; at least I was working with words and making good money. I feel I don't have the luxury to pursue what I really love doing (journalism). The field is dying, and even at its best it didn't pay enough for me to save and pay off debt. My dearest dream was always to be a novelist, and I have started but never finished a novel. Right now I am too stressed out about money and the future to even think about fiction writing. Plus, I'm mad at myself for putting all my eggs in the basket of that difficult dream without a practical backup plan. For a long time I considered myself inept at anything pragmatic and I'm trying to change that.

I'm looking for any advice on how I can get out of the hole I've dug for myself. I sort of have a plan but I'm not very confident or hopeful it will work out. Part of my hopelessness stems from knowing the economy, part of it is my low self-esteem. My plan is to start attending local meetings of the Society for Technical Communications. I don't have the money to join right now but at least I can attend meetings and start networking. I want to improve my resume; perhaps they can help. I will also set up my LinkedIn page. I currently have my own apartment; I'll save money by moving in with a friend if I have to.

Relocation may be an option with or without my husband but we haven't figured out if we're going on together or divorcing. I'd prefer to stay where I am right now if possible because the changes I've gone through recently have been upsetting enough, and I hope my husband and I can reconcile. FWIW, I've read tons of career books and I'm looking for advice from people in the current job market and the writing field, not from books. I fear that I'm going to lose everything quite soon, including my good credit rating. I wake up every morning scared and alone. I keep imagining myself elderly, as a burden on relatives or a bag lady. Please help me think this all through.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Is there any work in copy editing in your area that you would be qualified for? I knew someone with a similar academic background who found work in that area that led to him being able to get a better, higher-paying gig with less actual grunt work within two years.
posted by ishotjr at 11:07 PM on September 12, 2009

*oh, and by that I mean some kind of place like Hoover's.

Also, you could find out your state's teaching certification qualifications. With your advanced degrees, better-paying teaching gigs at a private school might be available, although the teaching market is super competitive right now in most places because of hiring freezes in many public school districts.
posted by ishotjr at 11:09 PM on September 12, 2009

Honestly, relocation might be the best thing for you and give you the best shot at reconciling with your husband. Since he is pursing an artistic career I assume he can be a bit more mobile in where he lives than most, plus not having you as his financial safety net may encourage him to bring back more a partnership.

Go to where the jobs are, overseas if necessary (teach english?). I know grant writing is always suggested for people with your skills but I do not know enough about the field to comment.

If you really want to be a cousellor are their any entry-level positions you can apply for at organisations that will help pay for your education? With your background I immediately thought you as an art therapist.

When I went through a bout of unemployment/underemployment due to a depressed local community I toughed it out - and it was tough, for a bout a decade. In hindsight, I wish I had left to follow the jobs and returned when the local economy improved. After all, part of the problem was that when the economy did improve my "just getting by" jobs were compared against people that had learned new things at well paying careers elsewhere making my experience count for nothing.

Good luck, you have gone through a lot and you are strong enough to get through this too.
posted by saucysault at 11:22 PM on September 12, 2009

Part of the problem you will face in looking for a job that pays more than $30,000 per year is that hiring managers will wonder why you've spent so mch time pursuing degrees and so little time in a conventional career.

This may be an unfair burden for you to bear when hunting for jobs but it is reality. You need to figure out a way to counter these objections. Show potential employers how your thirst for knowledge will benefit them.

That's the key to being hired anywhere: you need to convince the person interviewing you that he will benefit from hiring you to do a job.

How you do that given your background is beyond me but I'd focus my energy on figuring that out. Maybe see a career counselor who can help you focus your job search and help you develop your story?
posted by dfriedman at 11:31 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

My background is similar. When I was consulting I did any writing/editing I could including policy analysis and development, academic editing (I must have edited about a dozen masters' theses and three doctoral dissertations), and tech writing/editing. I stumbled into program evaluation. Just about any non-profit needs program evaluation because they have to be accountable to funders. I did it at an arts organization for two years and made 50% more doing much the same task for a post-secondary school for five years. The program evaluation gave me a steady income, only about $38,000 (Cdn) in the arts, started at $50,000 (Cdn) in post-secondary and got to about $60,000 there after five years. Check out the American Evaluation Association's website. With your background, you might want to think about women's services organizations. If they get money from the United Way, they have to submit program evaluations using the United Way's "logic model".

I also did work for a university's distance/continuing ed department, starting out tutoring distance ed students, and then writing some courses for the university. Check out the continuing ed depts at local colleges and universities for tutoring opportunities. If you can get a foot in the post-secondary world, you might be able to move into prior learning assessment and from there to student counselling.

One of the things I'm planning to do is start a blog on a particular passion of mine. I want to do it because it's a place I can write, but I know that some people make a bit of money from their blogs, too.

Good luck. You've got a lot on your plate right now, but never, ever doubt your ability. It can take some time to find a niche (I was 49 before I finally found mine) but the world needs your talents.
posted by angiep at 11:41 PM on September 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

Give yourself a fresh start and enter an entirely new field - you might as well aim yourself at a new challenge you can embrace.

The best way to make a big career change is to break down the skills you have to their elements and think about what tasks you would want to be doing or feel qualified to handle. For example, you have tutoring experience and say you're communication-oriented; you could consider applying for a mid-manager position. Those positions exist anywhere from a big insurance company to McDonalds. For that sort of job, you would certainly be an unconventional hire, but if you make it to the interview stage you always have a shot of "clicking" with the employer, so all your focus right now should be on thinking hard about your skill-set and how to apply to whichever career you want. Try as many angles as you can think of - at worst, it will give you a fresh focus and a positive goal, both of which it sounds like you could use.

Look at the positives. You're still fairly young and have a lot of life ahead of you - don't limit yourself or envision yourself wasting away on the streets or at a hopeless job. Despite what you might think right now or what the market seems to be telling you, your degrees and education are valuable, your writing experience is valuable, and your life experiences are valuable - you only need to find a way to unlock that value.
posted by lubujackson at 2:12 AM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

First off: The shame thing, and the part about worrying about your parents expectations and/or aggravations -- these are luxuries that you just cannot afford right now, they have to be let go of. Easier said than done I know, but if you were in deep water wearing cowboy boots, the first thing you'd do, though it'd be difficult to do, is to get those things off your feet, cuz they're dragging you down.

Glad that you've been able to find help through anti-depressants and all -- not everyone finds one that works for them. Better living through chemistry; I'm all for it. A huge help. Also: is it anxiety or panic that you're dealing with? Anxiety is low-level, sortof constant but sortof manageable fear, whereas panic is heart pounding, sweat running, your soul twisting and jerking around, your guts in a squeeze -- anxiety isn't fun but panic is a complete bastard, and if that's going on you've gotta march back to your shrinks office and say hi again. And if they talk about anxiety shake your head, say "Nope; not anxiety, doc, we're talking panic here" -- you've got enough going on, living with panic will just tear you down. And it can be treated, medicinal armistice can be reached, esp over the short term, until you get things squared away. Hint: beta-blockers.

I am not in your situation right now and have not been during this particular downturn. I was in it in another one but I had real focus on what I wanted to do and I had a skillset, though it was limited. So I'm not exactly the one to tell you what to do, and I won't, except for that first piece, shame and familial expectations stuff.

I can tell you that I walked into a womans office for a job interview, walked almost right past her to a painting on her wall that'd really caught my eye, and we talked about it, and then about art in general, and just whatever else came up, and before we sat down, before she'd asked me one word about computer programming she'd decided to hire me, because she'd hired lots of programmers but none who could talk about anything other than zeros and ones. Fact is that I did have the skills but that isn't what got me the job; she valued what I brought to the table. You've got one hell of a lot that you can bring to any table; the rest of the good people in this thread can tell you what table to go to probably.

Last. I admire the hell out of you and your commitment to living honestly, true to your heart, I admire your gamble on your life -- toss those dice! I can tell you that you've got one hell of a lot more jam than most of the people you're going to end up working with selling insurance or whatever else it is you end up headed into during this time; I worked with lots of programmers but hardly any that really loved it (myself most certainly included; I was pretty good at it but I'd never be great because it just didn't blow my skirt up), most of them were just taking up time, filling a suit that filled a chair that gave them medical insurance and a shiny car and big screen lcd. You, on the other hand, did something that they did not, that they just would not do -- you went out and lived the dream. Suffering for it now, yes, but look at the gray, sallow, pasty complexion of the mopes you're going to be sitting next to, see what twenty years of living without integrity does to a persons face -- it's not pretty. The fact that you're married to a creative type years your junior gives a clue that your face is just fine, and not sallow at all.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:03 AM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have a business that involves a lot of writing for organizations, and I used to be a tech writer. I wonder if you're seeing your skills clearly. You say, "All any employer wants are things I don't have, like quantitative skills and an ability to multi-task and focus on detail," yet you apparently succeeded as a technical writer, which is all about logical thinking and focus on detail. So I agree that it would be helpful for you to first make an inventory of your skills, ignoring, if possible, the self-defeating messages that are currently dominating your brain.

I know you don't want books, but here's one anyway that gave me a big kick in the pants: Overcoming Underearning by Barbara Stanny. It's all about challenging the internal messages that many women have about their worth in the market. Your public library should have it (mine did).

There's also the problem of self-categorization. If you believe statements like, "I'm a very abstract thinker," then you can easily believe that you would fail at anything that wasn't abstract. If you can rephrase it to something like, "I prefer work that involves abstract thinking," you leave the door open to the possibility that you could succeed in some tasks that aren't abstract and that you can develop new skills.
posted by PatoPata at 7:11 AM on September 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

You sound like you'd be perfect for a grant writing position at a university.
posted by MsMolly at 8:04 AM on September 13, 2009

I think you're a good candidate for technical writing, perhaps a business analyst, or even user researcher. Technical writing does not require any technical knowledge. You specify the function (e.g. what the user and then system does), not the code. Your background of anthropology and communications makes a lot of sense for this profession.

If you want to follow this track, I would spin a story around my education, admit frankly that you've pursued some other interests, and then prove you can do the job.

(1) You may not have known it, but now see that a lot of your interests / studies come together in technical writing, which you enjoy even though you'd rather be Baudelaire (who wouldn't?).

(2) You worked as a teacher's assistant, etc. while pursuing your higher education, traveling, and writing your novels. Be proud of that. It's a sign you are interesting, which frankly is one of the most important issue at hand when interviewing someone. Don't be surprised when the interviewer tells you he's jealous of you!

(3) Prove you're of value. Write sample specifications or instructions for sample projects. It's even better if you can volunteer to write the spec for a real project, but if not, just pick something. Learn from a book. With a couple good looking specs in hand, you are ahead of someone just out of school without samples, believe me.

You are very down on yourself. You're too old, too inexperienced, too artsy, too impractical, etc. You have to overcome this hurdle. Remember in your interviews at least to present yourself as having been lucky enough to write your novels!

However, I think given your inexperience you should move where ever you can find the best position, at least for a year or two. You can always move again later. This is how many people build careers.
posted by xammerboy at 1:28 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your tech writing experience and your life history would suit you for work as a business analyst. If you can talk to nerds, and you can talk to suits, and you can write, you can translate in the great United Nations of IT.

One thing that comes to me, reading your question, is that you really have no idea where you stand in comparison to other people looking for work. If you could see the great breadth of variance among the different people all applying for the same job, you would get a better picture of how you might fit in. It is worth your time to visit a career counselor.

You're smart, you can follow instructions, you can find the gap between what is needed and what is present, and you are strong enough to make independent decisions. If you can get these qualities into a cover letter, you've already got most people beat. The rest is just marketing.
posted by Sallyfur at 4:15 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

What about political/nonprofit communications? You seem like you could be a natural there. It's not necessarily the easiest thing to break into, but if you aren't bent on being the next White House press seceratary (and it certainly doesn't sound like you are), this is a career you could have up and running within a couple of years. It sounds like you should already have some connections (your pre-election work, the union - most union locals have at least one comms person) which is great, because really what you need to get started is communications skills and connections. If you can't find a paying job right away, find some local campaign or nonprofit you support and see if you can be their volunteer communications officer. Some solid press releases, blog posts and press hits under your belt will go a long way.

Also, I wonder if it's really fair to say your dreams didn't work out. So you haven't finished a novel - that doesn't mean you won't. The fact that you need to get a more stable career doesn't mean you've failed - it actually may yet provide you with the stability and peace-of-mind that you need to actually get some writing done. Most novelists have day jobs, even a lot of the published ones.

Or maybe you'll find some other passion. But it sounds like you think you've wasted your life, and you really have not.
posted by lunasol at 11:12 PM on September 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like angiep's suggestion about investigating program evaluation. It's labour-intensive work, and they are always going to need help.

I think you may wish to refrain from self-identifying as a writer. There are a lot of writers out there - too many - and it's just not enough of a differentiator in your job search. You can still search for writing jobs, but call yourself a "project manager" instead (be careful, because in some work environments you need accreditation before you call yourself this).

Finally, become details-oriented. It's not good enough to call yourself an abstract or conceptual thinker. Employers *pay people* to be details-oriented; only senior managers and CEOs have the luxury of not being details oriented.

Being details-oriented and fixing problems is part of your value-proposition.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:01 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

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